I checked out a copy of Cherry by Nico Walker from the local library. Twice. I stared at it on my nightstand. For a total of two months. I opened it once, reading several pages, then closing it again and leaving it on my nightstand. I ended up owing the library $2.00 in overdue fines.
For a couple weeks, the indie bookstore I work at carried a copy. I would stare at it every day I worked. Sometimes picking it up and flipping through the pages. I really wanted to read this book. Something was holding me back.
That “something”? Was time. Cherry is not a book that can be brushed aside for a convenient moment to read it. Once you start the book, really start it, it demands to be devoured. I read this book in two days – and felt like I had been held hostage on a deceptively well-crafted roller coaster.
This book is a force of nature.
Nico Walker is currently serving out the last years of his 11-year prison sentence. The crime: a series of bank robberies. But Walker is more than just a 21st century Butch Cassidy. He is also a recovering (hopefully) opioid addict and an Iraq war veteran. You get a sense reading Cherry, that the book is really a memoir, albeit an inaccurate one. There are holes in Walker’s memory that he fills with dramatic escapades and characters that are fictionally formed from people he encountered in real life. He described them to Rolling Stone as “archetypes.” As a reader, you catch on early that Walker is pulling from his own life experiences. The narrative quickly begins to morph into Walker, as the novel tumbles headfirst to its conclusion. For more of the real-life of Walker, I recommend giving the original Buzzfeed article a spin.
Based on his background, several things are true in Nico Walker’s first book (I say first because I will follow this writer to the ends of the earth – if only for another high-octane narrative ride). Walker did rob banks. The narrator of Cherry robs banks. Walker served as a medic in Iraq. The narrator of Cherry is a medic in Iraq. Walker had a tumultuous relationship with his wife/ex-wife. The narrator of Cherry has a dramatic relationship with a girl named Emily, who he marries, divorces, and falls in love with… in that order.
The real power of Cherry is the middle section of the book. For a fast-paced and traumatic 100 pages (give or take), Walker’s narrator explains what life was like for American soldiers sent to Iraq. I had already known that the nickname soldiers have for Iraq is “The Suck”. After reading Cherry, I can’t think of a better way to describe it. Everything, literally everything, about the narrator’s time in Iraq sucks. The food, the weather, the copious amount of death. The narrator of Cherry gets no relief, as he is sent again and again on various military operations while serving in Iraq. At one point, later on, when our narrator is suffering from an extreme case of PTSD, his doctor at the hospital makes a note that the narrator had been on more operations that any of the other soldiers in Iraq at the time. In fact, the shock would have been if Cherry’s antihero had a milder case of PTSD.
Walker rips away the facade of war-time, drowning the reader in the viscera of his fallen soldiers. At various moments, the narrator spins the reader around to face another burnt corpse, with attention paid to the anatomical manhood that has been incinerated. Walker has a gift for using raw language to make a stronger connection – these are men (young men) that have been shipped off to fight in a war, only to have their literal manhood erased in death. Its a powerful image that will imprint in your brain if you linger too long. And that is Walker’s gift, he doesn’t give you time to linger for too long because that could destroy you. Instead, the book pushes you forward with the narrator; as he returns home, finds heroin, and starts robbing banks.
The last third of Cherry is nothing new for anyone that has read or seen Requiem for a Dream or Trainspotting. The dramatic device of heroin addiction never changes, no matter who is writing the story. Walker connects his narrator’s opioid addiction with the larger issue of America’s opioid crisis, possibly to give faceless real-life addicts a chance at three-dimensional humanity. At times it works, mostly through the character of Emily (who I couldn’t help transposing Jennifer Connelly’s character from Requiem onto). Other times it doesn’t, describing getting high and chasing down the next drug deal is not one of Walker’s strengths as writer. It gets boring. But that isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, as Cherry continues on at its unchecked and frantic pace.
Walker has gifted the literary world with a powerhouse of a first novel, by far one of the best books that I have read in a long time and easily in my Top 10 for books that were published in 2018. I stand by my initial thoughts: Cherry is Requiem for a Dream meets Black Hawk Down, with rough edges that only Nico Walker could create.